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German magazine bags Obama 'confession' at G-20

Was there a touch of schadenfreude in the ensuing frenzy of commentary?

By James Hagengruber / April 10, 2009

US President Barack Obama comments on the economy after a meeting in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, April 10, 2009.

Photo by Olivier Douliery/ABACAUSA.COM/Newscom

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While pundits in the United States debate whether or not President Obama inclined his body toward Saudi King Abdullah at last week's Group of 20 meeting in London, attention in Europe is more focused on the president's verbal bowing during the summit.

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During the final "decisive" session of the G-20 meeting, President Obama uttered three words that, at least according to this account by the respected German news magazine Der Spiegel, amounted to a US confession for causing the financial crisis and and "may go down in world history as one of the greatest statements ever made."

What, pray tell, did the president say?

"I take responsibility."

Spiegel, which is Germany's 800-pound gorilla of serious political journalism, used the statement as the lead of its triple-bylined account of the summit, which is printed under the headline: "Obama's G-20 Confession." Much like the rising debate surrounding the president's alleged bow, the tale of the so-called confession is ripe for a bit of interpretation, which might help explain why the statement didn't lead the news in the US – rating only a mere mention deep in the bowels of the website Politico – much less garner nomination to be included among statements such as "All men are created equal," or "I have a dream," or "It ain't over 'til it's over."

Obama made the remark after he had been introduced by Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi. This is what the president said, according to Der Spiegel:

"It is important that we do not sell short the results of this summit. The press would like us to have conflicts. Instead we have attained great achievements. And it is important that we exude confidence."[Obama] then lowered his voice: "It is true, as my Italian friend has said, that the crisis began in the US. I take responsibility, even if I wasn't even president at the time."

Der Spiegel then continued:

The others couldn't believe their ears. Was that really a confession of guilt from the US? Was it a translation error, or at least an inaccuracy? Afterwards, this sentence fueled long discussions among the members of the German delegation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was so impressed by Obama's statement that she rushed to tell her finance minister, Peer Steinbrück. Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso reacted immediately: The proposal to hold the next summit not in Japan, but rather in the US, is something that he no longer rejects, he says, "now that the US has shouldered responsibility."

Germany, it should be noted, has a certain fixation with the idea of blame and responsibility. The statement from Obama might also be helping the Germans make sense of the financial crisis. And, as cliches remind us, Germans crave ordnung (order).

A recent column in The New York Times attempted to unravel why Germany attended the G-20 summit intent on assuaging the global financial crisis by developing more regulations. The country, according to the column by Nicolas Kulish, has undertaken a "concerted effort to permanently banish the instability and violence that have marked its history. That sense of insecurity includes Germany’s forced division in the cold war, the Nazi era and the hyperinflation of the 1920s, but it also stretches at least as far back as the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century, which decimated much of the German territories and population, and was a formative trauma."

Germany attended the summit with its wallet closed tightly, resisting calls from Obama for more stimulus spending. The prominent coverage of US "responsibility" – with Obama's remarks being treated less like a political statement than the confession of a bank robber – offers further evidence of a country not eager to pick up the tab for cleaning up this mess.

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